1902 Encyclopedia > Marco Polo

Marco Polo
Venetian traveller

MARCO POLO (c. 1254-1324), the Venetian, the most famous perhaps of all travellers. His history needs to be introduced by some account of the preceding generation of his family, and of the state of the world which rendered their and his extensive travels possible.

Under CHINA, in the introductory portion (vol. v. 627 sq.) we have briefly indicated the circumstances which the last half of the 13th century and first half of the 14th threw Asia open to Western travellers to a degree unknown before and since. We first hear of the Polo family in the year 1260. The vast wave of Tartar conquest, set in motion by Jenghiz Khan, and continuing to advance for some years after his death, had swept away all political barriers from the China Sea to the western frontier of Russia. This huge extent of empire continued for a time to own a supreme chief in the Great Khan, the head of the house of Jenghiz, whose headquarters were in the Mongolian steppe. Practically indeed the empire soon began to split up into several great monarchies under the descendants of his four sons, in order of age Juji, Jagatai, Oghotai, and Tuli. At the date we have named the supreme khanate had recently devolved upon Kublai, son of Tuli, and, after the founder, the ablest of his house. In the beginning of his reign Kublai carried out the transfer of the seat of rule from Karakorum on the northern verge of the Mongolian plains to the populous and civilized regions that had been conquered in the further East, a transfer which eventually converted the Tartar khan into a Chinese emperor.

Barka, the son of Juji, and the first of the house of Jenghiz to turn Moslem, reigned on the steppes of the Volga, where a standing camp, which eventually became a great city under the name of Sarai, had been established by his brother and predecessor Batu.

Hulagu, a younger brother of Kublai, after taking Baghdad, and putting the caliph Mosta’sim to death, had become practically independent ruler of Persia, Babylonia, Mesopotamia, and Armenia,—though he and his sons and his sons’ sons continued to the end of the century to stamp the name of the Great Khan upon their coins, and to use the Chinese seal of state which he conferred.

The house of Jagatai had settled upon the pastures of the Ili and in the valley of the Jaxartes, and ruled also the populous cities of Samarkand and Bokhara.

Kaidu, grandson of Oghotai, who had been the immediate successor of Jenghiz, refused to recognize the transfer of supreme authority to his cousins, and through the long life of Kublai was a thorn in the side of the latter. His immediate authority was exercised in what we should now call Chinese Turkestan and Southern Central Siberia.

Northern China had been conquered by Jenghiz and his successors from the Tartar dynasty called Kin or "Golden," who had held it about a century. But southern China still remained in the hands of the native dynasty, whose capital was the great city now known as Hang-chow-foo. Their dominion was still substantially intact, but its subjugation was a task to which Kublai soon turned his attention, and it became the most prominent transaction of his reign.

In India the most powerful sovereign was the Turk sultan of Delhi; but, though both Sind and Bengal owned his supremacy, no part of peninsular India had yet been invaded. The Dravidian kingdoms of the south were still untouched by foreign conquest, and the accumulated gold of ages lay in their temples and treasuries an easy prey for the coming Moslem.

In the Indo-Chinese peninsula and the Eastern Islands a variety of kingdoms and dynasties were expanding and contracting of which we have but dim and shifting glimpses. Their advance in wealth and art, far beyond what the present state of those regions would suggest, is attested by the vast and magnificent mediaeval remains of architecture which are found at intervals over both the Indo-Chinese continental countries and the islands, as at Pagán in Burmah, at Ayuthia in Siam, at Ongkor and many other places in Camboja, at Borobodor and Brambanan in Java. All these remains are deeply marked by Hindu influence.

Venetian genealogies and traditions of uncertain value trace the Polo family to Sebennico in Dalmatia, and before the end of the 11th century names of its members are found in the Great Council of the republic. But the ascertained line of the traveller begins only with his grandfather. Andrea Polo of S. Felice was the father of three sons, Marco, Nicolo, and Maffeo, of whom the second was the father of the subject of this article. They were presumably "noble," i.e., belonging to the families who had seats in the Great Council, and were enrolled in the Libro d’Oro; for we know that Marco the traveller is officially so styled (nobilis vir). The three brothers were engaged in commerce; the elder Marco, resident apparently in Constantinople and in the Crimea, does not enter into the history.

In 1260 we find Nicolo and Maffeo at Constantinople. How long they had been absent from Venice we do not know. Nicolo was a married man, and had left his wife there. In the year named the two brothers went on a speculation to the Crimea, whence a succession of chances and openings carried them to the court of Barka Khan at Sarai, and further north, and eventually across the steppes to Bokhara. Here they fell in with certain envoys who had been on a mission from the Great Khan Kublai to his brother Hulagu in Persia, and by them were persuaded to make the journey to Cathay in their company. And thus the first European travellers of whom we have any knowledge reached China. Kublai, when they reached his court, was either at CAMBALUC (q.v.), i.e., Peking, which he had just rebuilt on a vast scale, or at his beautiful summer seat at Shangtu in the country north of the great wall ("In Xanadu did Cubla Khan," &c.). It was the first time that the khan, a man full of energy and intelligence, had fallen in with European gentlemen. He was delighted with the Venetian brothers, listened eagerly to all that they had to tell of the Latin world, and decided to send them back as his envoys to the pope, with letters requesting the despatch of a large body of educated men to instruct his people in Christianity and in the liberal arts. The motive of the khan’s request was doubtless much the same that some years back influenced the black king of Uganda on Lake Nyanza to make a similar request through the traveller Stanley. With Kublai, as with his predecessors, religion was chiefly a political engine. The khan must be obeyed; how man should worship God was no matter to him. But Kublai was the first of his house to rise above the essential barbarism of the Mongols, and he had been able enough to discern that the Christian church could afford the aid he desired in taming his countrymen. It was only when Rome had failed lamentably to meet his advances that he fell back upon the lamas and their trumpery as, after a fashion, civilizing instruments.

The brothers arrived at Acre in April 1269. They learned that Clement IV. had died the year before, and no new pope had yet been chosen. So they went home to Venice, where they found that Nicolo’s wife was dead, but had left a son Marco, now a fine lad of fifteen.

The papal interregnum was the longest that had been known, at least since the dark ages. After the Polos had spent two years at home there was still no pope; and the brothers resolved on starting again for the East, taking young Mark with them. At Acre they took counsel with an eminent churchman, Tedaldo, archdeacon of Liége, and took from him letters to authenticate the causes that had hindered their mission. They had not yet left Ayas on the Cilician coast (then one of the chief points for the arrival and departure of the land-trade of Asia), when news overtook them that a pope had been elected in the person of their friend Archdeacon Tedaldo. They hastened back to Acre, and at last were able to execute Kublai’s commission and to obtain a papal reply. But, instead of the hundred teachers asked for by the Great Khan, the new pope (styled Gregory X.) could supply but two Dominicans; and these lost heart and turned back, when they had barely taken the first step of their journey.

The second start from Acre must have taken place about November 1271; and from a careful consideration of the indications and succession of chapters in Marco Polo’s book, it would seem that the party proceeded from Ayas to Sivas, and then by Mardin, Mosul, and Baghdad to Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf (see ORMUS), with the purpose of going on to China by sea; but that, some obstacle having interfered which compelled them to abandon this plan, they returned northward through Persia. Traversing Kerman and Khorasan they went on to Balkh and Badakhshan, in which last country—an Oriental Switzerland, as it has been called—they were long detained by the illness of young Marco. In a passage touching on the charming climate of the hills of Badakhshan, Marco breaks into an enthusiasm which he rarely betrays, but which is easily understood by those who have known what it is, with fever in the blood, to escape to the exhilarating air and fragrant pine-groves of the Himálaya. They then ascended the upper Oxus through Wakhán to the plateau of Pamir (a name first heard in Marco’s book). Those regions, so attractive to geographers, were never described again by any European traveller till the spirited expedition in 1838 of that excellent officer the late Lieutenant John Wood of the Indian navy, whose narrative abounds in the happiest incidental illustration of Marco Polo’s chapters. Crossing the Pamír highlands, the travellers descended upon Kashgar, whence they proceeded by Yarkand to Khotan. These are regions which remained almost absolutely closed to our knowledge till within the last twenty years, when the temporary overthrow of the Chinese power, and the enterprise of travellers like the late Mr Johnson and Mr Robert Shaw, followed by the missions of Sir Douglas Forsyth and his companions, and of Mr Ney Elias, again made them known.

From Khotan they passed on to the vicinity of Lake Lop (or Lob), reached still more recently, for the first time since Marco Polo’s journey, by the indefatigable Russian officer Prejevalsky, in 1871. Thence the great desert of Gobi was crossed to Tangut, as the region at the extreme north-west of China, both within and without the Wall, was then called.

In his account of the passage of the Gobi, or desert of Lop, as he calls it, Polo gives some description of the terrors with which the suggestions of solitude and desolation have peopled such tracts in most parts of the world, a description which reproduces with singular identity that of the Chinese pilgrim HWEN T’SANG (q.v.), in passing the same desert in the contrary direction six hundred years before.

The Venetians, in their further journey, were met and welcomed by the Great Khan’s people, and at last reached his presence at Shangtu, in the spring of 1275. Kublai received them with great cordiality, and took kindly to young Mark, by this time about one and twenty years of age. The "young bachelor," as the book calls him, applied himself diligently to the acquisition of the divers languages and written characters chiefly in use among the multifarious nationalities included in the khan’s court and administration; and Kublai, seeing that he was both clever and discreet, soon began to employ him in the public service. M. Pauthier, his most recent French editor, has found in the Chinese annals a record that in the year 1277 a certain Polo was nominated as a second-class commissioner or agent attached to the imperial council, a passage which we may without scruple apply to the young Venetian.

His first public mission was one which carried him through the provinces of Shansi, Shensi, and Szechuen, and the wild country on the coast of Tibet, to the remote province of Yunnan, called by the Mongols Karájang, and into northern Burmah (Mien). Marco, during his stay at court, had observed the khan’s delight in hearing of strange countries, of their manners, marvels, and oddities, and had heard his frank expressions of disgust at the stupidity of envoys and commissioners who could tell of nothing but their official business. And he took care to store his memory or his note-book with all curious facts that were likely to interest Kublai, and these, on his return to court, he related with vivacity. This first journey led him through a country which twenty years ago was an almost absolute terra incognita,—though within that time we have learned much regarding it through the journeys of Cooper, Garnier, Richthofen, Gill, Baber, and others. In this region there existed, and there still exists, in the deep valleys of the great rivers, and in the alpine regions which border them, a vast ethnological garden, as it were, of tribes of very various origin, and in every stage of semi-civilization or barbarism; and these afforded many strange products and eccentric traits of manners to entertain the emperor.

Marco rose rapidly in favour, and was often again employed on distant missions, as well as in domestic administration; but we are able to gather but few details of his employment. At one time we know that he held for three years the government of the great city of Yang-chow; on another occasion we find him visiting Karakorum on the north of the Gobi, the former residence of the Great Khans; again in Champa, or southern Cochin-China; and, once more, on a mission to the southern states of India. We are not informed whether his father and uncle shared in such employments, though they are specially mentioned as having rendered material service to the khan, in forwarding the capture of the city of Siang-yang-foo (on the Han river) during the war against southern China, by the construction of powerful artillery engines—a story, however, perplexed by chronological difficulties, which here we must pass over.

In any case the elder Polos were gathering wealth, which they longed to carry back to their home in the lagoons, and after their long exile they began to dread what might follow old Kublai’s death. The khan, however, was deaf to all suggestions of departure; and but for a happy chance we should have lost our mediaeval Herodotus.

Arghun, khan of Persia, the grandson of Kublai’s brother Hulagu, lost in 1286 his favourite wife, Bolgana (Bulughán or "Sable") by name. Her dying injunction was that her place should be filled only by a lady of her own Mongol tribe. Ambassadors were despatched to the court of Khánbáligh to obtain such a bride. The message was courteously received, and the choice fell on the lady Cocachin (Kukáchím), a maiden of seventeen, "moult bele dame et avenant." The overland road from Peking to Tabriz was not only of portentous length for so delicate a charge, but was then imperilled by war; so the envoys of Arghun proposed to return by sea. Having made acquaintance with the Venetians, and eager to profit by their experience, especially by that of Marco, who had just returned from his mission to India, they begged the khan as a favour to send the Franks in their company. He consented with reluctance, but fitted out the party nobly for the voyage, charging them with friendly messages to the potentates of Christendom, including the king of England. They appear to have sailed from the port of Chwan-chow (or CHINCHEW, q.v.) in Fuhkien, which was then the great haven of foreign trade, and was known to Western strangers as Zaitún, in the beginning of 1292. The voyage was an ill-starred one, involving long detention on the coast of Sumatra, and in the south of India; and two years or more passed before they arrived at their destination in Persia. Two out of the three envoys, and a vast proportion of their suite perished by the way; but the three hardier Venetians survived all perils, and so did the young lady, who had come to look on them with filial regard. It proved that Arghun Khan had been dead even before they quitted China; his brother reigned in his stead; and his son Ghazan succeeded to the lady’s hand. She took leave of the kindly Venetians, not without tears; they went on to Tabriz, and after a long delay there departed for Venice, which they seem to have reached about the end of 1295.

The first biographer of Marco Polo was the famous geographical collector John Baptist Ramusio, who wrote-more than two centuries after the traveller’s death. Facts and dates sometimes contradict his statements, but his story is told with great life and picturesqueness, and we need not hesitate to accept, at least as a genuine tradition, a romantic story, too long for repetition here, of the arrival of the Polos at their family mansion in the parish of St John Chrysostom, of their appearance at its door in worn and outlandish garb, of the scornful denial of their identity, and of the shrewd stratagem by which they secured acknowledgment from the society of Venice.

Some years pass ere we hear more of Marco Polo; and it is then in a militant capacity.

Jealousies, always too characteristic of Italian communities, were in the case of Venice and Genoa sharpened by direct commercial rivalry, and had been growing in bitterness throughout the 13th century. In 1298 the Genoese made preparations on a great scale to strike a blow at their rivals on their own ground, and a powerful fleet of galleys, under Lamba Doria as admiral, made straight for the Adriatic. Venice, on hearing of the Genoese armament, hastily equipped a fleet still more numerous, and; placed it under the command of Andrea Dandolo. The crew of a Venetian galley at this time amounted, all told, to 250 men, under a comito or master, but besides this officer each galley carried a sopracomito or gentleman commander, who was usually a noble. On one of the galleys of Dandolo’s fleet went Marco Polo in this last capacity.

The hostile fleets met before the island of Curzola on the 6th September, and engaged next morning. The battle ended in a complete victory to Genoa, the details of which may still be read, inscribed on the facade of the church of St Matthew in that city. Sixty-six Venetian galleys were burnt in the Bay of Curzola, and eighteen were carried to Genoa, with 7000 prisoners, one of whom was Marco Polo. The captivity was of less than a year’s duration; for by the mediation of Milan peace was made, on honourable terms for both republics, by July 1299 ; and Marco Polo was probably restored to his family during that or the following month.

But his captivity was memorable as being the means of bringing about the record of his remarkable experiences in the East. Up to this time he had doubtless often related his stories of Cathay among his friends; and from these stories indeed, and the frequent employment in them (as it would seem) of a numerical expression unfamiliar in those days, he had acquired the nickname of Marco Millioni. Yet it would seem that he had committed nothing to writing.

The narratives not only of Marco Polo but of several other famous mediaeval travellers (e.g., Ibn Batuta, Friar Odoric, Nicolo Conti) seem to have been extorted from them by a kind of pressure, and committed to paper by other hands. This indicates indeed how little the literary ambition which besets so many modern travellers weighed with the class in those days. It is also perhaps an example of that intense dislike to the use of pen and ink which still prevails among ordinary respectable folk on the shores of the Mediterranean.

But, in the prison of Genoa, Marco Polo fell in with a certain person of writing propensities, Rusticiano or Rustichello of Pisa, who also was a captive of the Genoese. His name is known otherwise to literary antiquaries as that of a respectable kind of literary hack, who abridged and recast several of the French romances of the Arthurian cycle which were then in fashion. He it was, apparently, who persuaded Marco Polo to defer no longer the committal to paper of his wonderful experiences. In any case it was he who wrote down these experiences at Marco’s dictation; and he is the man therefore to whom we owe the existence of this record, and possibly the preservation even of the traveller’s name and memory.

We learn but little of Marco Polo’s personal or family history after this captivity; but we know that at his death he left a wife, Donata by name (perhaps of the family of Loredano, but this is uncertain), and three daughters, Fantina and Bellela married, the former to Marco Bragadino, and Moreta then a spinster, but married at a later date to Ranuzzo Dolfino. One last glimpse of the traveller is gathered from his will, which is treasured in the library of St Mark’s. On the 9th January 1324 the traveller, now in his seventieth year, and sinking day by day under bodily infirmity, sent for a neighbouring priest and notary to make his testament. We do not know the exact time of his death, but it fell almost certainly within the year 1324, for we know from a scanty series of documents, commencing in June 1325, that he had at the latter date been some time dead. He was buried in accordance with his will, in the church of St Lorenzo, where the family burying-place was marked by a sarcophagus, erected by his filial care for his father Nicolo, which existed till near the end of the 16th century. On the renewal of the church in 1592 this seems to have been cast aside and lost.

The copious archives of Venice have yielded up a few traces of our traveller. Besides his own will just alluded to, there are in the library the wills of his uncle Marco and of his younger brother Maffeo; a few legal documents connected with the house property in St John Chrysostom, and other papers of similar character; and two or three entries in the record of the Maggior Consiglio. We have mentioned the sobriquet of Marco Millioni which he got from his young townsmen. Ramusio tells us that he had himself noted the use of this name in the public books of the commonwealth, and this statement has been verified of late years in one of those entries in the books of the Great Council (dated 10th April 1305), which records as one of the securities in a certain case the "Nobilis vir Marchus Paulo MILIOÑ." It is alleged that long after the traveller’s death there was always in the Venetian masques one individual who assumed the character of Marco Millioni, and told Munchausen-like stories to divert the vulgar. Such, if this be true, was the honour of our great man in his own country. One curious parchment among those preserved is the record of the judgment of the court of requests (Curia Petitionum) upon a suit brought by the "Nobilis Vir Marcus Polo" against Paulo Girardo, who had been an agent of his, to recover the value of a certain quantity of musk for which Girardo had not accounted. Another curious document brought to light within the last few years is a catalogue of certain curiosities and valuables which were collected in the house of the unhappy Marino Faliero, and this catalogue comprises several objects that Marco Polo had given to one of the Faliero family. Among these are two which would have been of matchless interest had they survived, viz.—"Unum anulum con inscriptione que dicit Cuibile Can Marco Polo, et unum torques cum multis animalibus Tartarorum sculptis que res donum dedit predictus Marcus quidam (cuidam) Faletrorum."

The most tangible record of Polo’s memory in Venice is a portion of the Ca’ Polo—the mansion (there is every reason to believe) where the three travellers, after their absence of a quarter century, were denied entrance. The court in which it stands was known in Ramusio’s time as the Corte del Millioni, and now is called Corte Sabbionera. That which remains of the ancient edifice is a passage with a decorated archway of Italo-Byzantine character pertaining to the 13th century. With this exception, what was probably the actual site of the mansion is now occupied by the Malibran theatre.

No genuine portrait of Marco Polo exists. There is a medallion portrait on the wall of the Sala dello Scudo in the ducal palace, which has become a kind of type; but it is a work of imagination no older than 1761. The oldest professed portrait is one in the gallery of Monsignor Badia at Rome, which is inscribed Marcus Polus Venetus Totius Orbis et Indie Peregrator Primus. It is a good picture, but evidently of the 16th century at earliest, and the figure is of the character of that time. The Europeans at Canton have attached the name of Marco Polo to a figure in a Buddhist temple there containing a gallery of "Arhans" or Buddhist saints, and popularly known as the "temple of the five hundred gods." There is a copy of this at Venice, which the Venetian municipality obtained on the occasion of the Geographical Congress there in 1881. But the whole notion was a groundless fancy.

The book indited by Rusticiano the Pisan, which has preserved Marco Polo’s fame, consists essentially of two parts. The first, or prologue, as it is termed, is the only part unfortunately which consists of actual personal narrative. It relates in a most interesting, though too brief, fashion the circumstances which led the two elder Polos to the khan’s court, with those of their second journey accompanied by Marco, and of the return to the West by the Indian seas and Persia. The second and staple part of the book consists of a long series of chapters of very unequal length and unsystematic structure, descriptive of the different states and provinces of Asia, with occasional notices of their sights and products, of curious manners and remarkable events, and especially regarding the emperor Kublai, his court, wars, and administration. A series of chapters near the close treats in a wordy and monotonous manner of sundry wars that took place between various branches of the house of Jenghiz in the latter half of the 13th century. This last series is either omitted or greatly curtailed in all the MS. copies and versions except one.

It was long a doubtful question in what language the work was originally written. That this had been some dialect of Italian was a natural presumption, and a contemporary statement could be alleged in its favour. But there is now no doubt that the original was French. This was first indicated by Count Baldelli-Boni, who published an elaborate edition of two of the Italian texts at Florence in 1827, and who found in the oldest of these indisputable signs that it was a translation from the French. The argument has since been followed up by others ; and a manuscript in rude and peculiar French, belonging to the National Library of Paris, which was printed by the Société de Géographie in 1824, has been demonstrated (as we need not hesitate to say) to be either the original or a very close transcript of the original dictation. A variety of its characteristics are strikingly indicative of the unrevised product of dictation, and are such as would necessarily have disappeared either in a translation or in a revised copy. Many illustrations could be adduced of the fact that the use of French was not a circumstance of a surprising or unusual nature; for the language had at that time, in some points of view, even a wider diffusion than at present, and examples of its literary employment by writers who were not Frenchmen are very numerous. It is superfluous to allege instances here, when we observe that Rusticiano himself, the scribe of the narrative, was a compiler of French romances.

Some eighty MSS. of the book are known, and their texts exhibit considerable differences. These fall under four principal types. Of these type i. is found completely only in that old French codex which has been mentioned. Type ii. is shown by several valuable MSS. in purer French, the best of which formed the basis of the edition prepared by the late M. Pauthier in 1865. It exhibits a text pruned and revised from the rude original, but without any exactness, though perhaps under some general direction by Marco Polo himself, for an inscription prefixed to one of the MSS. records the presentation of a copy by the traveller himself to the Seigneur Thibault de Cepoy, a distinguished Frenchman known to history, at Venice in the year 1306. Type iii. is that of a Latin version prepared in Marco Polo’s lifetime, though without any sign of his cognizance, by Francesco Pipino, a Dominican of Bologna, and translated from an Italian copy. In this, condensation and curtailment are carried a good deal further than in type ii. Some of the forms under which this type appears curiously illustrate the effects of absence of effective publication, not only before the invention of the press, but in its early days. Thus the Latin version published by Grynaeus at Basel in the Novus Orbis (1532) is different in its language from Pipino’s, and yet is clearly traceable to that as its foundation. In fact it is a retranslation into Latin from some version of Pipino (Marsden thinks the Portuguese printed one of 1502). It introduces also changes of its own, and is quite worthless as a text; and it is curious that Andreas Müller, who in the 17th century took much trouble with editing Polo according to his lights, should have unfortunately chosen as his text this fifth-hand version. It may he added that the French editions published in the middle of the 16th century were translations from Grynaeus’s Latin. Hence they complete this curious and vicious circle of translation—French, Italian, Pipino’s Latin, Portuguese, Grynaeus’s Latin, French.

The fourth type of text deviates largely from those already mentioned; its history and true character are involved in obscurity. It is only represented by the Italian version prepared for the press by G. B. Ramusio, with most interesting preliminary dissertations, and published at Venice two years after his death, in the second volume of the Navigationi e Viaggi. Its peculiarities are great. Ramusio seems to imply that he made some use of Pipino’s Latin, and various passages confirm this. But many new circumstances, and anecdotes occurring in no other copy, are introduced; many names assume a new shape; the whole style is more copious and literary in character than that of any other version. Whilst a few of the changes and interpolations seem to carry us further from the truth, others contain facts of Asiatic nature or history, as well as of Polo’s alleged experiences, which it is extremely difficult to ascribe to any hand but the traveller’s own.

We recognize to a certain extent tampering with the text, as in cases where the proper names used by Polo have been identified, and more modern forms substituted. In some other cases the editorial spirit has been more meddlesome and has gone astray. Thus the age of young Marco has been altered to correspond with a date which is itself erroneous. Ormus is described as an island, contrary to the old texts, and to the facts of its position in Polo’s time. In speaking of the oil-springs of Caucasus the phrase "camel-loads" has been substituted for "ship-loads," in ignorance that the site was Baku on the Caspian.

But on the other hand there are a number of new circumstances certainly genuine, which can hardly be ascribed to any one but Polo himself. We will quote one only. This is the account which Ramusio’s version gives of the oppressions exercised by Kublai’s Mohammedan minister Ahmed, telling how the Cathayans rose against him and murdered him, with the addition that Messer Marco was on the spot when all this happened. Not only is the whole story in substantial accordance with the Chinese annals, even to the name of the chief conspirator (Vanchu in Ramusio, Wangcheu in the Chinese records), but the annals also tell of the courageous frankness of "Polo, assessor of the privy council," in opening Kublai’s eyes to the iniquities of his agent.

To sum up, we can hardly doubt that we have, imbedded in the text of this most interesting edition of Ramusio’s, the supplementary recollections of the traveller, noted down at a later period of his life, but perplexed by translation and retranslation and editorial mistakes. The most important desideratum still remaining in reference to Polo’s book is the recovery of the original from which Ramusio derived the passages peculiar to his edition.

That Marco Polo has been so universally recognized as the prince of mediaeval travellers is due rather to the width of his experience, the vast compass of his journeys, and the romantic nature of his personal history than to transcendent superiority of character or capacity. Enthusiastic biographers, beginning with Ramusio, have placed him on the same platform with Columbus. But he has left no trace of the genius and lofty enthusiasm, the ardent and justified previsions, which mark the great admiral as one of the lights of the human race. It is a juster praise that the spur which his book eventually gave to geographical studies, and the beacons which it hung out at the eastern extremities of the earth helped to guide the aims, though hardly to kindle the fire of the greater son of the rival republic. His work was at least a link in the providential chain which at last dragged the New World to light.

But Polo also was the first traveller to trace a route across the whole longitude of Asia, naming and describing kingdom after kingdom, which he had seen with his own eyes; the first to speak of the new and brilliant court which had been established at Peking ; the first to reveal China in all its wealth and vastness and to tell us of the nations on its borders, with all their eccentricities of manners and worship; the first to tell more of Tibet than its name, to speak of Burmah, of Laos, of Siam, of Cochin-China, of Japan, of Java, of Sumatra, and of other islands of the Great Archipelago, that museum of beauty and marvels, of Nicobar and Andaman Islands with their naked savages, of Ceylon and its sacred peak, of India, not as a dream-land of fables, but as a country seen and partially explored; the first in mediaeval times to give any distinct account of the secluded Christian empire of Abyssinia, and of the semi-Christian island of Socotra, and to speak, however dimly, of Zanzibar, and of the vast and distant Madagascar; whilst he carries us also to the remotely opposite region of Siberia and the Arctic shores, to speak of dog-sledges, white bears, and reindeer-riding Tunguses. That all this rich catalogue of discoveries (as they may fitly be called) should belong to the revelation of one man and one book is ample ground enough to justify a very high place in the roll of fame.

Indeed it is remarkable in how large a proportion of the Old World modern travellers and explorers have been but developing what Marco Polo indicated in outline,—it might be said, without serious hyperbole, only travelling in his footsteps, most certainly illustrating his geographical notices. At the moment when these lines are written a British mission is starting to survey for political reasons a tract upon the Oxus; Marco Polo traversed this tract. For twenty years Russian and English explorers have been trying to solve the problem of the Pamir watershed; Marco Polo explored it. Till within the last quarter century the cities of eastern Turkestan, such as Kashgar, Yarkand, and Khotan, were known only from the compilation of Oriental fragments; Marco had visited them all. Within a shorter period dense darkness hung over the tracts between western China and Upper Burmah; these also had been traversed by Marco Polo. France is now scattering the brands of warm Tong-king, in Fuhkien, and in Madagascar; all these were within Marco Polo’s knowledge and find mention in his book. And how vast an area has he described from personal knowledge which remains outside of the fields that we have indicated! Readers of the book would welcome a little more of egotistical detail. Impersonality is carried to excess; and we are often driven to discern only by indirect and doubtful induction whether he is speaking of places from personal knowledge or from hearsay. In truth, though there are delightful exceptions, and though nearly every part of the book suggests interesting questions, a desperate meagreness and baldness does affect considerable parts of the narrative. In fact his work reminds us sometimes of his own description of Khorasan—"On chevauche par beaus plains et belles costieres, lá ou il a moult beaus herbages et bonne pasture et frais assez . . . et aucune fois y treuve Pen un desert de soixante milles ou de mains, esquel desers ne treuve l’en point d’eaue; mais la convient porter o lui!"

The diffusion of the book was hardly so rapid as has been sometimes alleged. It is true that we know from Gilles Mallet’s catalogue of the books collected in the Louvre by Charles V., dating c. 1370-75, that no less than five copies of Marco Polo’s work were then in the collection; but on the other hand the number spread over Europe of MSS. and early printed editions of Mandeville, with his lying wonders, indicates a much greater popularity. Dante who lived twenty-three years after the book was dictated, and who touches so many things in the seen and unseen worlds, never alludes to Polo, nor, we believe, to anything that can be connected with him; nor can any trace of Polo be discovered in the book of his contemporary Marino Sanudo the elder, though this worthy is well acquainted with the work, later by some years, of Hayton the Armenian, and though many of the subjects on which he writes in his own book (De Secretis Fidelium Crucis1) challenge a reference to Polo’s experiences. Perhaps indeed the most notable circumstance bearing in the same direction is the fact that the author of Mandeville, whoever he really was, and who plundered right and left, never plunders Polo, a thing only to be accounted for by his being ignorant of Polo’s existence. The only literary work we know of belonging to the 14th century which shows a thorough acquaintance with Polo’s book is the poetical romance of Baudouin de Sebourg, which borrows themes from it largely.

Marco Polo contributed so vast an amount of new facts to the knowledge of the earth’s surface, that one might have expected his book to have a sudden effect upon geography. But no such result occurred for a long time. Doubtless several causes contributed to this, of which the unreal character attributed to the book as a collection of romantic marvels, rather than of geographical and historical facts, may have been one,—a view that the diffusion of Mandeville’s fictions, far outdoing Polo’s facts in marvel, perhaps tended to corroborate, whilst supplanting the latter in popularity. But the essential causes were the imperfect nature of publication; the traditional character of the prevailing geography, which hampered the propagation of true statements; and the entire absence of scientific principle in what did pass for geography, so that there was no organ competent to the assimilation of so huge a mass of new knowledge.

The late Sir Francis Palgrave wrote a book called The Merchant and the Friar, in which it is feigned that Marco Polo comes to England, and becomes acquainted with Roger Bacon. Had Roger Bacon indeed known either the traveller or his book, we cannot doubt, from the good use he makes, in his Opus Majus, of William of Rubruk, that he would have turned the facts to good account.

But the world with which the map makers of the 13th and 14th centuries dealt was, in its outline, that handed down by traditions of the craft, as sanctioned by some fathers of the church, such as Orosius and Isidore, and sprinkled with a combination of classical and mediaeval legends. Almost universally the earth’s surface fills a circular disk, rounded by the ocean,—a fashion that already was ridiculed by Herodotus (iv. 36), as it was in a later generation by Aristotle (Meteorol., ii. 5). This was the most persistent and the most obstructive dogma of the false geography. The central point of the circle is occupied by Jerusalem, because it was found written in Ezekiel:—"Haec dicit Dominus Deus, Ista est Jerusalem, in medio gentium posui eam, et in circuitu ejus terras,"—supposed to be corroborated by the Psalmist’s expression, regarded as prophetic of our Lord’s passion—"Deus autem Rex noster ante saecula operatus est salutem in medio terrae" (Ps. lxxiv. 12). Paradise occupied the extreme east, because it was found in Genesis that the Lord planted a garden eastward in Eden. Gog and Magog were set in the far north or north-east because it was again said in Ezekiel; "Ecce ago super te Gog principem capitis Mosoch et Thubal . . . et ascendere te faciam de lateribus aquilonis." This last legend of Gog and Magog, shut up by a mountain-barrier, plays a prominent part in the romantic history of Alexander, which had such enormous currency in those ages, and attracted especial attention in the 13th century, owing to the general identification of the Tartar hordes with those impure nations whom the hero had shut up. It is not wonderful that the Tartar irruption into the West, heard of at first with as much astonishment as it would produce now, was connected with this old belief.

The loose and scanty nomenclature of the cosmography was mainly borrowed from Pliny and Mela, through such fathers as we have named ; whilst vacant spaces were occupied by Amazons, Arimaspians, and the realm of Prester John. A favourite representation of the inhabited earth was a great T within an 0 (see MAP).

Such schemes of the world had no place for the new knowledge. The first genuine attempt at a geographical compilation absolutely free from the traditional idola seems to be that in the Portulano Mediceo at Florence. In this, some slight use seems to be made of Polo. But a far more important work is one of the next generation, the celebrated Catalan map of 1375 in the Paris library. This also as an honest endeavour on a large scale to represent the known world on the basis of collected facts, casting aside all theories, pseudo-scientific and pseudo-theological; and a very remarkable work it is. In this work Marco Polo’s influence on maps is perhaps seen to the greatest advantage. As regards Central and Further Asia, and partially as regards India, his book is the basis of the map. His names are often much perverted, and it is not always easy to understand the view that the compiler took of his itineraries. Still we have Cathay admirably placed in the true position of China, as a great empire filling the south-east of Asia. The trans-Gangetic peninsula is absent, but that of India proper is, for the first time in the history of geography, represented with a fair approximation to correct form and position. We really seem to see in this map something like the idea of Asia that the traveller himself would have presented, had he bequeathed us a map.

In the following age we find more frequent indications that Polo’s book was diffused and read. And now that the spirit of discovery was beginning to stir, the work was regarded in a juster light as a book of facts, and not as a mere Romman du Grant Kaan. But the age produced new supplies of information in greater abundance than the knowledge of geographers was prepared to digest or co-ordinate; and, owing partly to this, and partly to his unhappy reversion to the fancy of a circular disk, the map of Fra Mauro (1459), one of the greatest map-making enterprises in history, and the result of immense labour in the collection of facts and the endeavour to combine them, really gives a much less accurate idea of Asia than the Carta Catalana.

When M. Libri, in his Hist. des Sciences Mathématiques, speaks of Columbus as "jealous of Polo’s laurels," he speaks rashly. In fact Columbus knew of Polo’s revelations only at second-hand, from the letters of the Florentine Paolo Toscanelli and the like; we cannot find that he ever refers to Polo by name. Though, to the day of his death, Columbus was full of imaginations about Zipangu (Japan) and the land of the Great Khan, as being in immediate proximity to his discoveries, these were but accidents of his great theory. It was his intimate conviction of the absolute smallness of the earth, of the vast extension of Asia eastward, and of the consequent narrowness of the western ocean on which his life’s project was based.

When, soon after the discovery of the New World, attempts were made to combine the new and old knowledge, the results were unhappy. The earliest of such combinations tried to realize the ideas of Columbus regarding the identity of his discoveries with the Great Khan’s dominions; but even after America had vindicated its independent existence, and the new knowledge of the Portuguese had introduced China where the Catalan map had presented Cathay, the latter country, with the whole of Polo’s nomenclature, was shunted to the north, forming a separate system. Henceforward the influence of Polo’s work on maps was simply injurious; and when to his names was added a sprinkling of Ptolemy’s, as was usual throughout the 16th century, the result was a hotch-potch conveying no approximation to any representation of facts.

Gradually the contributions of Ptolemy and Polo are used more sparingly, but in Sanson’s map (1659) a new element of confusion appears in numerous features derived from the "Nubian Geographer," i.e., Edrisi.

It is needless to follow the matter further. With the increased knowledge of northern Asia from the Russian side, and of China from the maps of Martini, followed by the later Jesuit surveys, and with the real science brought to bear on Asiatic geography by such men as De l’Isle and D’Anville, mere traditional nomenclature gradually disappeared; and the task which Polo has provided for the geographers of later days has been chiefly that of determining the true localities which his book describes under obsolete or corrupted names.

Before concluding, a word or two seems necessary on the subject of the alleged introduction of important inventions into Europe by Marco Polo. Assertions or surmises of this kind have been made in regard to the mariner’s compass, to gunpowder, and to printing. Though the old assertions as to the first two are still occasionally repeated in books of popular character, no one who has paid any attention to the subject now believes Marco can have had anything to do with their introduction. But there is no doubt that the resemblance of early European block-books to those of China is in some respects so striking that it seems clearly to indicate the derivation of the art from that country. There is, however, not the slightest reason for connecting this introduction with the name of Polo. His fame has so overshadowed later travellers that the fact has been generally overlooked that for some years in the 14th century not only were missions of the Roman church established in the chief cities of eastern China, but a regular overland trade was carried onbetween Italy and China, by way of Tana (Azoff), Astrakhan, Otrar, Kamul (Hami), and Kan-chow. Many a traveller other than Marco Polo might have brought home the block-books, and some might have witnessed the process of making them. This is the less to be ascribed to Polo, because he so curiously omits to speak of the process of printing, when, in describing the block-printed paper-money of China, his subject seems absolutely to challenge a description of the art. (H. Y.)


FOOTNOTE (page 408)

1 Printed by Bongars in the collection called Gesta Dei per Francos, 1611.

The above article was written by: Col. Henry Yule, C.B.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries